Sunday, December 4, 2016

Passion Italian-Style in WWII Paris

Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
Metropolitan Opera
November 25, 2016

Manon reminisces about simpler times
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Met Opera
The Met’s new production of Puccini’s first big breakthrough opera from 1893 is back for its second year in a row with a new cast. When we saw this production on the opening night of its run last winter, Roberto Alagna had stepped in to save the day due to an “unexpected” cancellation by the chronic canceller Jonas Kaufmann, opposite the gorgeous Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais. Back then it was our first Manon Lescaut and we liked it fine, though we did not feel it was something worth writing home about. This year, maybe because of the new (superior) cast or due to some Wagnerian exposure, we actually liked this Puccini highly melodramatic opera much better.

Manon unleashes her diva
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Met Opera
With the new cast, the dynamic tension between the characters shifted ever so slightly. Carlos Alvarez brought out his rich and lyric tenore spinto. His voice is vibrant and fits squarely in the Puccini canon. He played a cocky, headstrong des Grieux, with his male assertiveness coming across in his brutal attack on certain notes in key dramatic moments. His No, pazzo son in the climax of Act III turned out to be one of the most moving moments of the evening. I found that the threat of separation between the two lovers tugged on my heartstrings. Alvarez’s performance was gripping and the fact that I was virtually moved to tears completely blind-sided me. I usually find Puccini too sentimental, too saccharine, too sappy for my tastes, and yet he still manages to sneak up on me especially during scenes like this one that feature big bursts of muscular emotions set to music.  

When it comes to Anna Netrebko, it seems like she was born to sing this role. There is something about the way she embodies Manon that seems at first blush to be entirely out of character but that ultimately brings to the fore elements that you don’t usually see from other singers. While Netrebko and her voice seem a touch too mature for the Act I incarnation of this innocent country maiden who is on her way to a convent, she played her Manon as a fresh faced ingénue who was completely unaware of the innate diva-esque powers of seduction that she naturally possesses. It was a revelation in many ways, not least of all because she owned the role vocally, even while only feigning innocent naïveté. So by injecting her larger than life diva quality even in these nascent moments of Manon’s early blossoming, Netrebko endowed the character with something very special, not to mention fitting for what this young woman may in part also be deep down.

Manon possesses her inner diva
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Met Opera
In the first act, she discovers what she is capable of. In the second, she finds herself in a quandary of sorts. Having been forced by her opportunistic brother to leave the man whom she really loves, she uses her natural gifts to carve out a very posh niche for herself in the rarified Parisian world of the rich and famous in which she seems to serve as little more than a glorified whore. Clad in her plush full-length furs and surrounded by a slew of Art Deco luxuries, Netrebko dreamily croons In quelle trine morbide about missing the simpler life she enjoyed with des Grieux, her more passionate lover, the man whom she abandoned without even saying goodbye. She pines for those times when she had fewer toys but soaked up a whole lot more love, long kisses and amorous embraces.

In this case, Manon is actively a trickster. She knows exactly what she is doing when she manipulates des Grieux back into her embrace in Act II. She is a dangerous seductress using the only weapon in her arsenal as femme fatale, and that is her antico fascino che accieca. Poor des Grieux immediately falls for it, to his own knowing chagrin. Netrebko plays the moment beautifully. A slippery snake who knows the power she holds over men. Des Grieux then really sees through her deceit and artifice when she reverts back to her opportunistic materialist self after they are alerted that her arrest is imminent. Rather than high tail it out of there, she goes back to her boudoir for the jewels and the gold, and Alvarez breaks into one of his most heart wrenching numbers in the first half of the opera, Ah, Manon, mi tradisce il tuo folle pensier, which he belts out with a manly desperation. She continues to play him and he is distraught. It is in moments like this one that makes me think that Puccini really nailed it. This whole movement in the music and the narrative very concisely captures the spirit of Prévost’s novel, in which Manon is a cold blooded heartbreaker and des Grieux let's his crush get the better of him at every turn, yet he just can't help himself, and so he always goes back for more. Crazy he is indeed.

The Column of Trajan and the painting visible in the boudoir backdrop
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Met Opera
Set against the backdrop of a Nazi occupied France, Richard Eyre’s distinctive take on the opera opens in Amiens, France, only this time the year is 1941. The village of the original has been transformed into a provincial French township and the fashion has been adapted to match. On the whole the updated setting enlivens the story, despite initially feeling like another futile experiment in the modern history of operatic Regietheater. Upon further reflection, however, some of these directorial decisions do in fact add several insightful layers to the story as it stands. Not only does it come off completely sexed up – the costumes and sets look great – but it also introduces deeper motivations for such plot points as to why Manon is headed to a convent in Act I and as to why the arrival of the gendarmes in Act II is extra heartbreaking, not to mention the deportation twist in Act III.

Manon flirts with her sugar daddy
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Met Opera
Talking with a scholar of French literature and culture during one of the intermissions, I was taken by a particular insight that sheds some light on how we might go about decoding some of the liberties Richard Eyre took with this concept, especially considering the bold decision to set the opera in a France under German occupation in the year 1941, rather than the late 18th century (the novel is set in the first half of the 18th century, Puccini moves it to the second half of that century). The suggestion is that Manon is Jewish and like many rural Jewish girls of the time she is being shipped off to a convent in order to escape persecution – a relatively common occurrence. Then in Act II when the soldiers burst in to abscond with her, it is because Geronte has not merely denounced her for lechery, but rather that he has reported her Jewishness to the authorities. And so in barge the Nazis. A particularly cruel form of revenge for having found her in the midst of a tryst with her former lover and his prior rival. It’s a very powerful reading, and it very likely is what the director and his team were going for.

Not every aspect of the production fits into this reading and for it to work at all you have to use your imagination, particularly in Act IV. But the broad outlines of this notion seem to be there, and the direction makes every attempt to make it all mesh. The Act III role of the prostitutes and prisoners who are being shipped off as slave laborers to the new world would then seem to provide a parallel to the rounding up of individuals to be sent off to concentration camps. In fact, they are all systematically stripped down one-by-one during the humiliating roll call portion of the act and dressed in sad gray smocks with numbers stenciled on them, so Holocaust references would not be a stretch.

The Nazi deportation forces cart her off to the camps
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Met Opera
By the time we get to the final act, however, Eyre’s staging of Act IV only functions on the level of metaphor. The lovers find themselves in a wasteland, both the work of their all-consuming passion and of the war that has been raging on in the meantime. This is one of the main points in which the words being sung in the Italian are incongruous to the action on stage, and I usually find this practice harder to condone. The long slow death of the beloved nevertheless plays out against the backdrop of a war-ravaged cityscape and, when sung by the likes of Alvarez and Netrebko, it is a harrowing experience for all involved. An appropriately Wagnerian finale, a Liebestod in the Italian fashion, as Puccini intended it.  

The slithery snake sneaks up on her prey
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Met Opera
Rob Howell’s signature rotund set design (with striking similarities to his work in the Met’s current productions of Carmen and Le nozze di Figaro) cleverly includes in Manon’s courtesan quarters in Act II a mock up of the Column of Trajan in Rome that features an array of Kama Sutra poses and a screen with an enormous image of Cupid pinching Venus’ nipple from the iconic painting by Agnolo Branzino, The Allegory of Venus and Cupid. The part of the painting that is on full display includes the right side of the composition in which the monstrous figure of Temptation holds forth in one hand the promise of love and pleasure in the form of a honeycomb; in the other she holds the menacing prick of her scorpion tail. These elements provide a kinky backdrop against which Manon's big courtesan scene unfolds. It displays clues to the pain that will inevitably follow in the wake of love's great transitory pleasure, especially as these two lovers sing of lips that wound and heal – dolcissimo soffrir, indeed!

The set for this act must also include a great big bed and this makes Puccini powerfully unique. The libretto and the writing are among the most Dionysian outside of Wagner, but Puccini is Italian and so the quality is distinctly more warm-blooded. Just to read the text for the big love scene when des Grieux and Manon are reunited is to go on a trip to Venusberg that is not otherworldly, but profoundly of the here and now. It’s deep, if you let it work its magic on you. It can be a bit misleading for its verismo undertones, but to understand Manon Lescaut, it seems to me that you have to know not only Cavalleria rusticana, but also Tannhäuser and maybe even Tristan und Isolde, which makes it a perfect pairing for this season at the Met.

The wasteland provides the backdrop for the final movement
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Met Opera
Manon Lescaut’s Act II contains one of the deepest most Dionysian expressions of operatic abandonment in the Italian canon that I have seen. And it is only thanks to Wagner (of all people) that I have come to this understanding. This opera can take you places if you let it and it does contain raw bits of the Puccini works to come. The beginning gives you a glimpse of what is to come in the first act of La boheme. Act III gives you a glimpse of the winning formula that brought us the E lucevan le stelle movement in Tosca. And there are other prolepses of what is to come in Puccini’s later work. But his attempt to descend into the Dionysian in the second half of Act II and what happens in Act IV all amount to something very deep. This is not Verdi, and it’s not Wagner, nor is it the later Puccini. Richard Eyre’s production does not entirely disappoint.

– Lui & Lei

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